The Banking Balancing Act Advanced technology vs experienced bankers As previously published on In Business Madison October 15, 2012 issue.

Today, virtually all banking customers, both business and personal, leverage the conveniences of technology to manage their banking needs when, how, and where they want. Do we really need to go to the bank anymore?

Embracing technology
Business owners expect and demand the convenience of electronic banking, which permits owners and their employees to spend valuable time growing their business. Banking technology offers them tools to access and organize financial information, manage cash and expenses, accelerate customer payments, and more. Online tools act as a portal to these functions and provide the convenience to help operate their businesses more efficiently.

Automated, online options are growing at a faster pace than ever before. The continued adoption of mobile computing is one catalyst. Mobile devices increase access to information and allow person-to-person and business-to-business interactivity while driving consumer and business buying behaviors. The integration of banking tools and technology into mobile devices will only increase, theoretically making banking even less reliant on branch locations.

The balance
Yet banks continue to invest in branches, and business customers should take full advantage. Why should business owners demand the banking balance? It is highly recommended that business owners take full advantage of the conveniences today's technologies offer. From a "bottom-line perspective," the convenience, efficiency, and in most cases, the cost savings of bank technology outweigh the time and effort of traditional transactions. Customers, suppliers, and employees recognize the benefits these technologies provide and will increasingly demand them.

However, brick-and-mortar bank locations allow business customers to balance the latest technologies and offerings with unique insight from trusted advisors – bankers who know them and their business. Technology alone cannot do this for you.

An ideal banking team can be comprised of a variety of representatives based on a company's needs, including a business banker, the local branch manager, a personal banker, a mortgage officer, the teller supervisor, the customer care center representative, and/or a treasury management specialist. One of these individuals should be the designated quarterback of the relationship, taking the lead in understanding and advocating for your needs. He or she should direct you to other key partners that add value, while continually adjusting the team and incorporating specialists as needed based on the business' changing needs. By knowing as many people at the bank as possible, as well as their roles, business customers can take full advantage of an interpersonal banking relationship.

Another key strength of trusted relationship bankers is regularly consulting with businesses on managing and improving cash flow. Ultimately, cash flow is driven by determining how to best optimize earnings through reinvesting in the business. Improved cash flow also provides the ability to increase officer salaries or owner distributions. While technology may facilitate cash flow management, it does not necessarily optimize it. A trusted banker will analyze and discuss day-to-day cash flow management and design solutions that support interim cash flow needs when there are gaps in the cash flow cycle, in addition to financing growth needs such as increased inventory, new equipment, or additional facility needs. A strong relationship with your banker can fill this gap whether or not business loans are identified as a priority for your business.

Bankers can also help business owners analyze and assess the safety and security of their finance management. While all online banking platforms are run on secure infrastructures, it is important to be informed about system security and aware of potential risks, such as identity theft, account/online fraud, and others. Risk assessment and protection too often get overlooked and don't become a priority until something goes wrong. Proactively addressing risks can limit, and possibly eliminate, your future exposure in the event you are affected.

Considerations for small businesses
Lastly, the banking balance is particularly important for small business owners. Small business owners often prefer the convenience of one bank handling both their business and personal needs. However, since the average small business owner's personal and professional financial successes are inextricably linked, there is an added benefit. Using a single bank and banking team ensures that the owner's business and personal goals are understood, considered, and aligned, resulting in solutions designed to achieve both.

In today's technology-driven world, banks are going to continue to invest in technology to make banking services more convenient, efficient, and streamlined. By leveraging technology as well as a banking team's internal expertise, business owners will be better positioned to adapt to changing needs, growth, and goals. Finding the banking balance is a critical investment for running a successful business.

Doug Kohlbeck is a senior vice president and director of business banking for Associated Bank in Wisconsin and has more than 20 years of experience in the financial services industry.